Lonesome Ghosts in Old Buildings
Karl and the Paddle-Wheel Steamer from Saint Joseph
OMAHA – Karl rode up on a paddle-wheel steamer in 1870 to work in the massive Union
Pacific maintenance train yard here when Omaha was a claptrap shanty village of wooden piers, saloons, stables and whorehouses sprawling along the muddy west bank of the Missouri River.
Freezing winter, sweltering summer, he swung that hammer, slamming the great Iron Horse locomotives back into service on the track hauling cattle and grain. It was the Iron Age, and forges roared.
Then Karl, dreaming of his baby, longing for his wife — saving his pay check to bring them up from Saint Jo — caught a fatal pneumonia and died, shivering blue, in his one-bedroom apartment one bitter-cold January morning.
Problem was, he didn’t cross over. He waited, for 150 years, in the apartment pictured below — waited at the window overlooking the Missouri River valley from whence his sweetheart and baby girl would come.
Karl wasn’t a bad sort. (The bad ones are down in the basement in the storage bins. You only go down there with a friend and a flashlight in case the electricity fails, and God help you if you ever get stuck down there alone one night.)
It’s just that Karl became inconvenient when my son and his fiancée moved into the apartment. I mean, there Karl was: bumping around all the time — not in a mean way, you understand; but just aimlessly floating from one window to another. My son didn’t see him, but his fiancée did. She sees lots of things like Karl.
So my wife worked at the time with a woman who saw the same things my son’s fiancée does. She came over and the three of them stood in a circle holding hands, calling Karl. They prayed, they chanted, they became light-energy. (I wasn’t there. I had no business being there. I am incapable of channeling Divine Feminine Wisdom and Spiritual Love.) The ladies — Sandra, Melissa and Laurie — told Karl the tables had turned and that it was his family waiting for him now, waiting for their long-lost Karl. So go, Karl — just go. Via con Dios and bon voyage!
Resistance at first, but then . . . release, the spiraling updraft of Karl’s spirit taking wing, flying home at long last.
Do you have ESP? I often wish I did. Of course I’m a great believer in the spiritual component of life. That belief led me to get spirituality into my Ganja Tales screenplay, the story I wrote before my two cannabis comedies.
In Ganja Tales, spirituality appears in the form of Tiffany, an ex-stripper. She has a great scene in the screenplay up on a pole. Friends, if I had a quarter for every time I rewrote that scene to make it as perfect as I could I’d be able to buy a ticket and come visit you. I cried like a baby for days when I killed her, so real she’d become to me.
Tiffany is the B Character, the one who teaches protagonist Tony a lesson of love that mends his broken heart. So they’re smoking a cigarette late the first night out of Omaha. They’re in Western Nebraska and I have to clash them up because this is drama and only conflict is interesting; so the conflict is that Tiffany is spiritual and Tony isn’t – not after what he saw as a combat medic in Iraq. So they clash in dialogue and the scene wraps up and Tiffany says “That’s fine, Tony, but tell you what. I’ll be waiting for you, just remember that.”
And he says “Waiting for what? For me to come around?” And she gives him a drop-dead stare and says: ”That’s right, Tony. Waiting at the bus stop for you to come around.”
Film is such a great medium to play with. Complex, but fun. Like the opposite sex, right? Ha!
And yes, I’m glad you asked. I also used a ghost who wouldn’t cross over in my Ganja Tales screenplay. My particular ghost was a 10-year-old white girl who was kidnapped by two Sioux braves one night when she left the wagon train to draw water from the creek along the Oregon trail, kidnapped and never repatriated.
“I don’t suppose you see that little girl down there by the creek?” Tiffany asks Tony. “Nope,” he says. “Can’t say I do.” Tiffany explains how the girl’s ghost comes back every year looking for her family, how she died with the Sioux years later when U.S. Cavalry attacked her village one day with sabers flashing, cutting down women and children.
“Tony!” Tiffany cries. “The snow was red with their blood!”
Now it’s his turn to play a card. Tony gives her the drop-dead look and says: “Funny, you saw blood-soaked snow; I saw blood-soaked sand.”
Do you live in an old place with ghosts?
I do. Picture two long apartment buildings facing one another and set vertical to the street as you walk in. Room for six residences on each side. It was built a hundred years ago for railroad workers. So of course people have over the decades died here, cried here, killed themselves here or been killed here: and yes, created life here. Probably lots of it.
Indeed, like you, no doubt, where I live is a tiny speck of a teeming microcosm in the planetary petri dish. But what a microcosm! It bursts with life. I can hardly sleep at night. Sometimes, swinging in my traces, the wind whistling and Orion wheeling by overhead, I hear dead residents, their whispers and dreams, begging me to shine light, begging me to tell their story and set them free.
I’m pretty sure the ladies got Karl home a few years back. But if perchance you should see him, point to Saint Jo and give him a friendly push, won’t you? I’m sure he’d appreciate it.
Here’s an interesting article about steamboat travel on the Missouri river:
Here is a forge story I wrote a few years ago, “Pound It Down, Daddy,” for a local rag.